Read More: A brief interview with David Fleming
It’s nearly ten o’clock when I give up and call her.
“Hey,” she says, surprised. “What are you up to?”
“Watching a game,” I tell her. “Home alone.”
“Oh, yeah,” she remembers. “Melissa took the kids overnight, right?”
“Yeah. What about you?”
“Just reading. Old spinster, here.”
I breathe through all the eery prickliness in my empty home, and I ask her quickly. “You wanna go for a walk?”
“A walk, Darren? Right now?”
“What, exactly, are you thinking?”
“Not thinking,” I admit. This is not about thinking.
She is silent. Then I hear her exhale in that way she does that’s almost like laughter.
“So you are a cheater,” she says. Not even raising her voice in pitch. Not asking, but concluding.
I could see her over the top of my cubicle. A long, tanned forearm sliding out of the bunched sleeve of a black dress speckled with copper-colored blots. Some the size of pennies, some the size of pins. I smelled the hot thick leaves on the oak trees in the courtyard through the open windows near my desk, and I knew. I had to leave.
I rose to go, slid my bag over my shoulder. I followed a wide beam of early evening sun that unrolled like a sick whale’s tongue on the grey carpet of the office. I was almost in the clear, when Gerald from HR called me back.
“Darren,” he said. “Wait. Come meet Natasha before you head out.”
I turned around, eyes aloof. As if I hadn’t seen the middle-aged administrator walk in with a new girl. A hot new girl.
“Hello,” I said. “I’m Darren.”
“Hi,” she said. “Natasha.”
Natasha. Eye contact. Smiling. Extending that arm. Her long hand nesting, for a moment, in mine.
“Natasha’s the new medical technologist we’ve hired to join the inspections team.”
I heard it like a bad traffic report.
“I was actually just going to head home a little early,” I told Gerald. “Slow day.”
Gerald folded his hands in front of him and grinned.
“Darren’s got a couple of little ones he’s always in a hurry to get home to, so we let him flex his time on his days in the office.”
“It’s a good job,” I admitted.
Natasha smiled the way some people do at the mention of children. “Oh, how old are your kids?” she asked.
“Our son just turned four,” I told her, “and our daughter is only three months.”
I understood what the brief downward movement of her eyes meant when I saw it. The ill-concealed glance to my left hand. The completed inspection of the ring-finger. She looked back to my face. I was already noticing her too much.
“We won’t keep you, Darren,” Gerald said. “You’ll be spending plenty of time together in the next few weeks as Natasha joins the rotation.”
“Okay,” I said, nodding slightly. “Okay.”
“Nice to meet you, Natasha,” I said. “Glad to have you here.”
On my walk home, I stopped at the grocery store. We were out of coffee, so I got medium roast, Melissa’s preference. I thought to buy the flavored creamer, the expensive one in the black and bronze bottle, because she sometimes has that as a treat.
They tell you a coat of paint will last five years, but every single day I scan the long wooden boards of my home for signs of wear, fade, rot. I had painted the grey-shuttered wooden exterior green weeks after we moved into our mid-century, four-bedroom last summer. Whenever Melissa catches me looking too hard at the house, she questions me. Five years, she says. Can’t you just enjoy it until then?
I come home most nights to a hot meal, a curious toddler, a happy baby. Melissa is on maternity leave this year. Despite the exhaustion, and the erosion beyond exhaustion, this is the dream. The little boy, the baby girl, the post-war house.
I walked in the front door, telling myself not to mention Natasha.
After dinner, while Melissa read to William, I bathed Amelia in the little plastic tub on the bathroom counter. When she was clean and cold, I dried and dressed her. I handed her off to Melissa, who disappeared to nurse the baby to sleep. The usual bedtime routine. I went to William’s room, and the boy was playing on the floor.
“Ceiling?” he said, pointing up.
“Yup,” I said, picking him up with both hands and swinging him onto his bed. I lay next to him like always. Our nightly ritual is a kind of stalling tactic, an attempt to wring a little more from the day, or else, a simple meditation. I pointed at the ceiling and said, “our house.”
He pointed and said, “Me.”
I pointed to another spot. “Park.”
He pointed and said, “Slide.”
I pointed again, and said, “Gramma’s.”
He said, “Kitty cat.”
I pointed and said, “School.”
He said, “Teacher.”
I pointed and said, “Work.”
He said, “Daddy.”
First I washed the plates. Front. Back. Rinse. Rack. Then the silverware. Cups, pot, frying pan, salad bowl, casserole. Melissa had her yoga mat unrolled on the living room floor. Her ass round and high in the air. Hands and feet planted firm on the mat. Curved from her butt to her shoulders like a cello. When I looked again, her shoulders and her face were turned toward me, an arm stretching to the ceiling, fingers spread like a fan. She breathed slowly, her chest expanding her tank top, her upper ribs visible near her collarbone. When I heard her rise from the mat, I took two glasses and filled them with water. “It looks like you’re really getting the hang of that, honey,” I said as she drank.
“Thanks,” she said. “It feels really good.”
“It looks really good,” I said.
She finished a long gulp of water.
“It’s not for you,” she said, looking right at me. “I’m not doing it for you.”
“I know,” nodding to assure her. “I know.”
A moment passed.
“How was work today?” she asked, breaking the silence.
“Good, I guess. Slow.”
And then I said it.
“What?” she asked.
“They hired a new technologist.”
“Yeah?” Melissa turned her head a little to the side. “She good?”
“I don’t know, yet. I just met her on my way out.”
I took another sip of water.
“Watch it. We can’t go through that shit again.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“You know exactly what I mean. I’m not putting up with it anymore.”
I lowered my face, looking at my hands, while Melissa drank her last few gulps of water, and put the glass noisily back on the marble countertop.
“Well,” she said, hands on hips. “I’m gonna go shower. See you upstairs.”
She turned on her heels and left the room.
The next week, I followed Natasha out of an elevator. She moved quickly, shoes clicking on the floor, like she was chief of medicine. She was several yards ahead of me when a nurse pointed her to the empty side room where two dialysis stations were setup. She made eye contact with me, to be sure I was following, and continued inside.
She opened the cabinet from the front and cleaned around the edges, check. Felt in the grooves around the dialyzer, check, counted and recorded the number of movements, up and down, of each hydraulic pump over the course of ten seconds, check, closed the cabinet and held the power button in for three seconds until the machine beeped to indicate the scanner was active, check, watched the small red, digital screen until three lights flashed to indicate the hardware was functioning, check, signed and dated a blue sticker, check, placed it on the machine, check, signed her inspection form, check, and handed it to me.
“Did you time me?” she asked, grinning as I filled out the form certifying she had performed an inspection of a dialysis machine.
“No,” I answered, looking down and smiling. “Not a race.”
“No?” squinting her eyes, like I had uttered an insult.
“I don’t believe you, Darren. There’s always some kind of competition.” She said it like a gangster in a bad movie.
“Yeah?” I went with it. “Maybe there is. But I always win.”
Natasha, free hand on her hip, exhaled through clenched teeth, slouching her shoulders in bemused exasperation.
“So Darren,“ she said at lunch.
“So Natasha.” We sat at a picnic table under an oak tree just outside our office.
“You’ve got two kids, right?”
“Yep,” I said, looking down at the sandwich in my hands. “Two.”
“More on the way?” she asked. She scooped her yogurt with a white, plastic spoon. Out of the cup, into her mouth.
“I don’t know yet. Maybe.”
When the yogurt was finished, she completely removed the brown and yellow skin from her banana. She held the fruit with two fingers in the middle, then broke off short chunks to chew and swallow.
“Did you start having babies right after you got married?”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“That’s what I wanna do. Get those babes swimming out of me as soon as possible.”
“It’s one way to do it,” I shrugged. I had already noticed the ring on her finger. “You’re married?”
“Engaged.” She raised a bottle of water and tilted her head back slightly to take a drink. “My fiancé’s doing a fellowship in San Francisco until next summer. It’ll probably be another two years before we get married. I don’t wanna be here doing all the planning myself, like I’m pining away until he comes back. I just gotta live, right?”
“Understandable,” I said.
“Oh. You understand?”
“You think you understand me now, Darren?” She leaned back a little and wrinkled her brow.
“Yeah,” I laughed, “I think I do.”
I most certainly did.
“Okay, good,” the new inspector said, nodding in approval. She reached for her clipboard, signed her initials in big, swooping, cursive letters on a blue inspection sticker and leaned across the table, patting the sticker onto my chest.
“There,” she said. “That’ll do. You’ll be good for another year, at least.”
Night by night by night. After dinner, I bathed Amelia in the little plastic tub on the bathroom counter. A dot of shampoo in her thin black hair, foaming, scrubbing and rinsing with one hand. Holding the other hand close to her head in case she should wriggle and slip. When her hair was clean, I used a thin wash cloth printed with ducklings to clean the area around her eyes, to scrub her toothless gums, remove the milk crust from the corners of her frequently puckered mouth. I took her chin in one hand and lifted it high. Amelia tightened her small abdomen, straightened her arms, and clenched her fists. She was silent and still, in this position, while I removed the semicircle of black grime from the crease in her neck. I took another wash cloth and frothed soap all over it. I ran the cloth back and forth four times over each arm, armpit, her chest and back. I cleaned the creases in her groin, her thighs, knees, and all the way down to her feet. I leaned her forward and pulled her slightly up so she resembled a frog mid-leap; I scrubbed her bottom that had turned red in the bath water.
When she was clean and cold, I dried and dressed her. I took her to the rocking chair in her bedroom, and fed her the bottle of milk Melissa had pumped before dinner so she could do yoga while I got the kids to sleep.
By the time William and I had ordered our part of the universe on his ceiling, I was nearly asleep myself, or in some kind of trance. When I came back downstairs to do the dishes, Melissa wasn’t there. At the front bay window, the late evening sun still bled through the narrow space between the curtains. I heard the water spurt on in the shower upstairs. The days last forever this time of year, I thought.
Propelled by a mysterious force the turns some wheel in me several times a year, I put on gym clothes and laced up my sneakers, stepping nimbly out the front door, onto the sidewalk. It felt good, to stretch my legs wide. Bounding on my toes, my strides too long. I could hear, then, my college roommate’s voice, his late adolescent performance of authority. “You’re running like a sprinter,” he’d tell me on occasions when I’d join him on his daily 5k. “You’ll fuck your hamstrings,” he’d say, shaking his head. “It feels good for a few minutes, but you won’t last.” In defiance, I’d accelerate ahead for several seconds, tempting him to do the same. I’d slow again as if resetting my pace, and then burst forward again. “Look,” he’d say tired of my antics. “I know your little league coach told you to run like that, but this is about endurance. You gotta make your steps smaller. I know it doesn’t make sense, but you gotta cover the same distance with more steps. Trust me,” he’d say. “You’ll last longer that way.”
Natasha is rigorous, precise, efficient. She can do the job in her sleep. There is an elegance in the tedium of our work. We have our checklists and we move, side-by-side, room-to-room. Installing, interviewing, inspecting. Each beeping machine, each swooping initial, a tiny thrill. Like partners in a rigid, linear cotillion, we adjust our movements to each other, keeping our distance, mostly.
Until earlier this week.
We had two days of inspections at a rural hospital two hours from home. We took a rental car in the morning, spent the day in and out of hospital rooms.
At 6, she walked into the hotel bar. Everyone looked up from their meals. She was in a sleeveless red dress, its ruched collar ringing her neck. She had straightened her hair. Black clutch, black belt, black heels. She was dressed in a common language.
Around 8, after food, and beers, and banter, a drunk, grey, bearded man sat next to Natasha. He pointed a stubby thumb in my direction.
“Baby,” he said slowly. “What are you doing with this clown?”
“Excuse me?” she answered. She leaned forward, fierce with booze.
“This guy,” the man repeated. “He’s a clown, what’re ya doin’ with him?” He winked at me when he said it, as if to say just a joke, bud. Let’s be friends.
Natasha leaned against the back of her chair, lengthening her torso. Her face, tight and icy. Blurry from beer, it was far from my capabilities to anticipate her response here.
“Papa,” she said. “If I told you what I was doing with him, you wouldn’t be able to walk home tonight.” She paused, glaring. “Move on,” she ordered. “Now.”
There was genuine disdain in her voice, in the hardening of her gaze. The grey guy widened his eyes at me and backed out, scraping the legs of his chair along the hard floor. This was not his hour to make friends with strangers, he now understood. He gave me a pat on the arm, saying, “Have fun with that one, pal!” and pattered away.
“The people in this town,” she said through a great exhalation. She stood, grabbed her clutch. “I’m gonna go settle up for us,” she insisted.
I watched her walk to the bar and pay our check. She looked over at me and smiled, raising her eyebrows, and tipped her head in the direction of the exit. I followed her out. We got to my door first. I swiped the key and the light turned green. I opened the door and Natasha went strutting in like it was nothing.
She spun in place, her skirt billowing just enough to see midway up her thighs. She stopped gently on a heel, and flopped onto the queen bed. I laid down next to her, propped on my elbow. I slid my hand along her ribcage, and she was looking right at me. Her dark brown eyes. Her long hair, all over the bed.
Then, the phone. A clamoring, rotary bell. I sat up. The tan hotel phone on the nightstand. Ringing and ringing loud. I picked it up, held it to my ear.
“Hey, how’s it going?”
“Okay. What are you doing?”
“Just laying in bed. In the hotel room.”
“I know,” she said. “I called your room. You wouldn’t answer your cell phone.”
“Oh? Sorry,” I stammered. “I must have dozed off. I had beer with dinner.”
Seconds. Long seconds.
“Well, I need you to talk to William. He won’t go to sleep. I don’t do the ceiling thing right.”
“Sure,” I said. “Put him on.” I picked the phone up from the table, and walked over to the bureau, facing the mirror next to the television. I heard William breathing into the phone. “Hey, buddy,” I said. “How’s it going?”
“Just calling to say goodnight!” He said it loud, like someone who believes he will never need to sleep again.
In the mirror, I saw Natasha stand slowly from the bed. She squeezed my arm twice, and walked to the door. She opened the door, so quiet, and slipped out.
After Amelia’s bath, after the ceiling thing with William, after the dishes, when we were sure the kids were both sound asleep, I brought a chair from the dining room table to the bathroom and sat in front of the large mirror. Melissa took out the comb, scissors, and clippers she uses to cut my hair. She bought the kit before we got married, saying she would save us millions in barbering costs. She attached the number 2, plugged in the small machine, and faded my sideburns, around my ears, the back of my head. She paused to clear chunks of fluff out of the attachment, to make sure everything was evenly blended, and then used the scissors to de-bulk the top of my head. When it was done, she rubbed her palms all over. A cloud of small, bristling hairs rose and fell onto my shoulders, some of it down into my shirt. Melissa wrapped her arms around my neck, bending over at the waist. She kissed my cheek, and held her face next to mine. Looking into the mirror, she said, “Handsome guy.”
I reached behind to give her an awkward hug.
“You remember I’m taking the kids with me to Patty’s overnight tomorrow, right?”
Once or twice each year, Melissa visits a childhood friend who lives a few hours away. She takes the kids, spends the night.
“It’ll be pizza and beer for you, I guess,” she says. “That’ll be a nice night off.”
I understood. These were instructions.
Yeah,” I said. “That’ll be nice. That’ll be a great Friday night.”
“This is a lot of work,” Melissa said, her arms still around my neck, looking right at me in the mirror. Her eyes on my reflection felt like a pair of suns burning me skinless.
“It’s worth it to me though, honey. I’m happy being married to you. Do you know that? I want this life with you more than anything.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Of course. Of course I do.”
Okay,” she said standing up and patting my shoulders. “My part is done. You’ll clean up?”
Closing in. I stop and buy a six-pack of beer on the way home from work for a quiet evening alone. Fall has come, and it’s cold out, so I take a hot shower when I get home. After a few minutes, I plug the drain and let the tub fill up. I lay there a long time. What kind of pizza? Extra cheese. Pepperoni. Bacon. Mushroom. Any kind I want. I keep repeating it. A quiet evening with pizza and beer.
I get out of the bathtub when the water turns cold. The drain is slow, and I can hear the scraping suction of the pipes from the bedroom as I put on jeans and a sweatshirt. The sound quickens in the moments before it stops completely, and I picture myself falling into a black hole. Not headlong, but sliding into its grooves and circling slowly. Then faster. Then faster. Then dropping. A quiet evening with pizza and beer. I sit down on the bed, and thumb through the phone; I jam it into my pocket.
In the basement, I open a beer and watch the evening news. When enough time passes, I order the pizza. Give us forty-five minutes, they say. I hang-up, thumb at my phone while the man on the television reads me the world.
I open another beer and it’s time for baseball. The Phillies and the Cardinals, in prime time. Roy Halladay on the mound. The first pitch. The pizza arrives. I open the box on the basement floor, placing it at my feet. I lean forward where I sit, holding each slice so the grease drips onto the cardboard. No mess. A quiet night of pizza and beer.
Three innings in, and it’s 2-1 Cardinals. Roy Halladay, the Phillies’ Ace of Aces, just doesn’t have it tonight. A veteran, conscious of his limits, does what he can with them. The result is a dramatic performance no one cares to see. Ugly innings. Rising pitch-count. But he manages to keep the lid on things. How does he do it?
I uncap a beer, take the hard first gulp. I hold my phone in front of me. Strange. Nothing from Melissa. Nothing from Natasha either. I lay back on the couch. Look up at the ceiling. Nothing there. I prop my head on the arm of the sofa so I can drink. I hold the phone against my leg, so I can feel if it vibrates. This is what a quiet evening, with beer and pizza, looks like.
I lose track of the game, and I call her.
“So you are a cheater,” she says.
I say nothing.
“Meet me at Franklin Square,” she says flatly. “It’s not far from me.”
I remember Melissa’s instructions, her warning. I remember, also, when we were first married and we went to Bermuda. Lying on my back in the water, looking up at the sky, Melissa called out to me, “Darren. Darren.” She pointed at something in the water. “What is that?” she asked.
I stood and saw the seahorse floating placidly in the water next to me. I cupped my hands around the creature, cradling it so it was still submerged in seawater. I held it out to her. “Look,” I said.
“Seahorse,” she answered with wonder.
Seahorses are weird. Just a ridged tail with a snout and eyeballs. They curl and unfurl with inexplicable grace. If I hadn’t held a live seahorse in my hands, I could be convinced that they are imaginary.
We later learned they mate for life. “You better put him back,” she said.
I think of our seahorse bobbing away in the waves, that day. I think of our little boy, our baby girl. Everything we’ve made together. All of it. All of it should keep me from floating away. But it doesn’t.
My face is warm against the cool air. My legs move like they are automated. My whole life hanging here, but I keep going. Past the grocery store on Quinpool, onto Market Street. I hear my shoes plod heavy on the sidewalk as I go. But they feel light, like I could step up and amble on the air.
Natasha waits in the center of Franklin Square.
“Well I don’t think you’ll pass anyone’s drunk test tonight, sir,” she says. My gait looks crooked, I guess, though it feels perfectly straight to me.
“Who me?” I respond aloud. “I’m fine!”
“Whatever you say,” she answers. “I’m glad you called.” She slides her hand under my arm, then into the pocket of her coat, linking us together, and we walk. Contact. I am electric with pleasure. “I thought I lost my chance at the hotel,” she says. […]
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David Fleming is a fiction writer and poet whose work has appeared in Everything Is So Political and Impressment Gang. He lives with his family in Montreal.
Read More: A brief interview with David Fleming